An Unfinished Freeway Revolt: Car-Free Vancouver Day

fwys_equal_climate_crime_8186.jpgBanner at Car-Free Vancouver Day
gateway_sux_8187.jpgThe organization fighting the massive freeway plan in Vancouver

I’m just back from a fantastic five-day visit to Vancouver to help celebrate and publicly ponder Car-Free Vancouver Day. The event started six years ago along East Vancouver’s Commercial Drive (“the Drive” as it is often called there). It has grown to encompass five separate neighborhood street closures, one being the very wide 4- to 6-lane Main Street where it is closed for about 17 blocks. To San Franciscans the event has a certain familiarity, combining something of our venerable tradition of street fairs with the newer excitement of “Sunday Streets.” But unlike the well-established and highly commercial street fairs, or the city-sponsored Sunday Streets, Car-Free Vancouver Day is a product of grassroots organizing, with hundreds of volunteers working hard for months to produce an exciting day of urban reinhabitation.

child_chalking_8210.jpgStreet closure as art gallery.
learning_unicycle_8213.jpgLearning to unicycle on Car-Free Vancouver Day
street_hockey_8208.jpg"Score a goal for community!"
red_salsa_dancing_8217.jpgSerious salsa dancing for fun
transition_town_meeting_8216.jpgTransition town meeting in mid-street.

The event has its roots in the years-long campaign to stop a $10 billion freeway and port expansion plan that will bulldoze local farms, neighborhoods, and indigenous sites, in addition to wrecking a couple of extant urban wilderness zones at Burns Bog and Surrey Bend. The Gateway Sucks campaign emphasizes that this plan, which is still proceeding, will lock in more urban sprawl and sabotage the local greenhouse gas reduction plan, all to increase trade in raw goods and disposable junk.

dont_pave_burns_bog_8188.jpg

commercial_drive_long_view_w_brazil_fans_8225.jpgCar-free Commercial Drive in midday

The East Vancouver neighborhood was the first to propose a day-long closure of the its main corridor Commercial Drive as a way to demonstrate popular opposition to further freeway building. Urban activists like Matt Hern, who along with his family was my super fantastic host, saw a street closure as a way of animating the community, bringing people face to face in a car-free zone for at least a day, but in so doing, promote a more convivial and integrated neighborhood life year-round. Based on my short visit, I’d have to say that it’s been a smashing success—the provincial British Columbia government has yet to back down on their gargantuan 20th-century development plan, but the rising tide of community activism, urban gardening, bicycle advocacy and much more is palpable in Vancouver.

east_tenth_ave_bikeway_8067.jpgEast Tenth Avenue is one of Vancouver’s primary bike boulevards.
traffic_calming_culdesac_w_bike_access_8063.jpgSimilar to Berkeley’s traffic-calmed cul-de-sacs, Vancouver makes bicycling a priority in many locations.
cypress_garden_w_dad_and_carriage_8141.jpgCommunity gardens abound in Vancouver.
city_farmer_gate_with_ifny_8148.jpgThe City Farmer gate made of old tools.

The recently elected mayor is a source of controversy. On one hand he’s a big bicycle advocate and has pushed through two tangible improvements for cyclists that have generated plenty of heat from merchants and auto-centric citizens. One long-standing demand of local cyclists, an additional southbound lane for bikes on the major arterial Burrard Bridge, has been established.

burrard_bridge_waving_8156.jpgThis is the Burrard Bridge in Vancouver. Why can’t we do this with one lane on the west span of the Bay Bridge once the east span is complete? That way bikes could ride all the way across…

Another is a two-way bike lane that has replaced one of the westbound lanes on a major boulevard in downtown, Dunsmuir Avenue.  Even more dramatic is that Dunsmuir is reached by an old viaduct that was built as part of a freeway plan several decades ago but never completed. Now the onramp has the bike lane on it and a whole lane has been switched over to two-way bike traffic. If Vancouver can do this, why can’t San Francisco start planning to narrow the five lanes on the Bay Bridge, reduce the speed limit to 30 or 40 on the west span, and with the eventual completion of the new east span bike lane, we’ll be able to cross the bay on bike at long last?

dunsmuir_viaduct_bike_lane_from_top_looking_west_8087.jpgDunsmuir viaduct two-way bike lane.
dunsmuir_viaduct_bike_lane_ramp_8089.jpgDunsmuir viaduct bike lane.

dunsmuir_viaduct_from_below_8174.jpgThis is the Dunsmuir viaduct from below. It’s an old freeway ramp that was stopped a generation ago from completion through downtown. Now it has a bike lane on it, but a study has begun to see if removing it might be the best plan.
dunsmuir_center_city_w_overpass_two_way_lane_8069.jpgMerchants are complaining but bicyclists are delighted about the new two-way bike lane on a major downtown boulevard in Vancouver, Dunsmuir Avenue.
dunsmuir_bike_lane_with_large_bike_parking_8074.jpgUsing the divider as dedicated bike parking…. brilliant!

The whole downtown area endured (celebrated?) the Winter Olympics this past February, and the city’s budget is now being slashed. The same pro-bicycling mayor hired a city manager who is gutting the local school budget, park maintenance, libraries, and everything else they can cut to address the massive cost overruns the city incurred to host the Olympics. The False Creek area, once a seedy industrial zone, has been utterly refashioned (not unlike San Francisco’s Mission Bay) with the Olympic village housing area (promises for large amounts of public housing have been reneged on now, not surprisingly) and a refurbished shoreline promenade looking out at a manmade “Habitat Island.”

habitat_island_8052.jpg"Habitat Island"?
habitat_island_8054.jpgWell yes, we have to make habitat now, having fully destroyed it in the past.

green_roof_and_ped_bridge_on_false_creek_8050.jpgWeird modernistic ped bridge near False Creek, with "green" roof on new building behind it.

San Francisco and Vancouver have a lot in common. Big money keeps flowing in, driving real estate prices into the stratosphere, and keeping them there. But an increasingly active citizenry is resisting the untrammeled capitalist growth and development model with an indomitable spirit that makes Vancouver a great place to visit IN SPITE of its much-touted “success.”

I had the pleasure of speaking to four separate gatherings of organizers, presenting some of my “typical” themes. Building on the logic of Nowtopia, I argued that the Car-Free Vancouver Day movement should work to avoid having their festival succumb to the logic of being not much more than an alternative mall. That means utilizing the public space they’ve opened for much more than commerce, in fact finding so many compelling things to do in it that they displace commerce in ways similar to the way that bicycles displace cars during Critical Mass (many of the activists in Vancouver are big Critical Mass participants too). I was happy to see a lot of other activities while I was rolling around between Main Street and Commercial Drive. Here’s some images of music and bikes to wrap up this report:

bateria_blanca_8233.jpgMusic in the streets, in many forms and styles.
brass_band_8195.jpgBrass to start get your party on.
beer_trike_velopalooza_8193.jpgThe Velopalooza beer bike… central to a week-long celebration of bicycling earlier in June.
refreshingly_car_free_8203.jpgMarigold demonstrates a mature ride.

cc_on_teensy_bike_8201.jpgMe too!
corporate_art_has_no_heart_8229.jpgThis was in the tree over the amazing Purple Thistle crowd, a youth center with enormous creativity and energy.

  • haaa chris que diablos?!?! that foto of you is awesome
    great post +go vancouver 😀

  • Very cool! This makes me a little more excited to visit Vancouver for the first time in a couple of weeks – thanks!!

  • Good article.

    Only a very few number of merchants have complained about the bike lanes. Some are actually very supportive. For example, the owner of a pizza place likes the safety improvements and feels that the lanes will increase business.

  • Stephanie

    Don’t get too excited by what you see in these photos. I spend a lot of time in Vancouver and can tell you that the general consensus in that city is that the bike lanes are a miserable failure pushed forth on by a mayor who is apparently a card-carrying memeber of Greenpeace. These photos were taken on Car-Free Day. Unfortunatley those bike lanes are virtualy empty the rest of the year while traffic congestion increases in what’s left of their shrinking road network.

    Oh, and those communty gardens… Not a pretty site. They look more like overgrown weed gardens with zero character to surround the space.

  • Matthew

    Great report Chris! In my mind, a very accurate account of what’s going on here in Vancouver; the successes, the failings, the challenges… And some great photos! It was a pleasure meeting you and hearing you speak last week!

  • Please disregard Stephanie. Vancouver is becoming a bike friendly city despite those bitter car drivers who go on about why cars need more roads and people don’t. It’s like this whenever things change. People like Stephanie blow my mind, she would say no to handicapped access for curbs and hell, while she’s at it, lets ban those handicapped folks altogether. There are so few of them, hardly seems worth it.
    Seriously, 99% of all the “Road” money to date as gone into car infrastructure and now they are spending 25 million on upgrading bike roads and car drivers are freaking! (well some of them at least)

    My argument is simple, safe bike roads mean more people will ride. Great bike roads also attract tourists who will come to Vancouver to ride bikes and enjoy our amazing city!

    Lets try and little survey: would you come to Vancouver to ride your bike and enjoy our great city? – or would you rather rent a car and drive around?

    Or do you agree with Stephanie and think safe bike roads are stupid and a waste of time?

    Please come and visit us in Vancouver!!
    most of us are nice.

  • moving forward 2010

    I’ll be the second to attest to the fact Stephanie does not get what is going on in Vancouver. Her efforts to attack the mayor (“bike lanes are a miserable failure”) demonstrate that she doesn’t know the city’s historical commitment to sustainability or the challenges facing humans and other species. In addition to the rejection of the downtown freeway discussed in the article Vancouver produced one of North America’s first climate change mitigation strategies in 1990 (http://vancouver.ca/sustainability/documents/CloudsofChangeVol1.pdf); has been prioritizing pedestrian, cycling and transit ahead of motor vehicles since 1997 (http://vancouver.ca/engsvcs/transport/plan/) and recently set and met the goal of creating 2010 community garden plots in advance of the Winter Olympics (http://vancouver.ca/COMMSVCS/SOCIALPLANNING/initiatives/foodpolicy/projects/2010gardens.htm). The previous council brought in the stiffest energy and water efficiency standards for new construction which have since been increased to LEED Gold under the current mayor and council (http://www.vancouver-ecodensity.ca/content.php?id=2). This legacy of leadership was recently recognized by Corporate Knights, which named Vancouver Canada’s most sustainable city, and with the announcement that the city has the smallest carbon footprint of any large city in North America. Personally, I am thrilled to bits that our fine city is showing leadership on the sustainability front and is recognizing areas that are in need of improvement to make the next steps (e.g. safe bike network) toward becoming a resilient city (http://www.gaininggroundsummit.com/vancouver2009/recordings.htm). As a testament to the level of interest in this direction last night approximately 2,000 citizens and experts packed into a theater downtown for special edition ‘Walk the Talk, Green Your City’ Pecha Kucha night. This is part of the Greenest City 2020 initiative (http://vancouver.ca/greenestcity/).

    Now, I’m not writing this to brag. I am one citizen and this sustainability problem is not one that can be solved by one person or even a single city. A recent report frustratingly drove this home showing that many of the gains accomplished by urban centers in Canada are being diminished by profoundly unsustainable activities in the suburbs (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/toronto/canadian-regions-wipe-out-municipal-efforts-at-being-green-study/article1582233/). But it’s increasingly clear that national and international failure to address the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change indicate that cities, which have been home to more than half the world’s population since 2007, are critical to addressing these problems and providing people with a chance at a good quality of life with affordable access to amenities. The decentralized suburban idea sought to do that for the last 60 years and did provide people with a decent quality of life. But, we are now in a new era where we have a moral imperative to reduce GHG emissions for future generations and the immense cost challenges that peaking oil production will bring (http://www.commoncurrent.com/notes/2010/06/redesigning-civilization-after.html). These are things that we can do and many are already doing but a critical piece is for people like Stephanie to understand why we are doing them. In that regard, I guess the city needs to do a better job with its citizen engagement.

    PS – Thanks for the great blog and bike videos Streetsblog! You guys rock!

  • moving forward

    I’ll be the second to attest to the fact Stephanie does not get what is going on in Vancouver. Her efforts to attack the mayor (“bike lanes are a miserable failure”) demonstrate that she doesn’t know the city’s historical commitment to sustainability, the profound energy and ecological challenges facing humans and other species over the coming decades or respect that a lot of people pour love and effort into growing food and flowers in the gardens she dismisses as “overgrown weed gardens with zero character to surround the space”. In addition to the 1973 rejection of the downtown freeway referenced in the title of the article Vancouver produced ‘Clouds of Change’, one of North America’s first climate change mitigation strategies in 1990; has been prioritizing pedestrian, cycling and transit ahead of motor vehicles since the creation of the 1997 Transportation Plan and recently set and met the goal of creating 2010 community garden plots in advance of the Winter Olympics. The previous council brought in the stiffest energy and water efficiency standards for new construction which have since been increased to LEED Gold under the current mayor and council. These things have helped the city achieve the smallest carbon footprint of any large city in North America. Personally, I am thrilled to bits that my city and fellow citizens are showing leadership on the sustainability front and recognizing areas that are in need of improvement to make the next steps (e.g. safe bike network, waste reduction, food security) toward becoming a resilient city. As a testament to the level of interest in this direction earlier this week approximately 2,000 citizens and experts packed into a theater downtown for special edition ‘Walk the Talk, Green Your City’ Pecha Kucha night.

    Now, I’m not writing this to brag. I am one citizen and this sustainability problem is not one that can be solved by one person or even a single city. A recent report frustratingly drove this home showing that many of the gains accomplished by urban centers in Canada are being diminished by the unsustainable activities (e.g. auto-dependency) in the broader regions in which they’re located. But while we have thus far failed at the national and international scales to address the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change, cities have emerged as critical to addressing these problems while providing people with a chance at a good quality of life with affordable access to amenities. The decentralized suburban idea sought to do that for the last 60 years and did provide a lot of people with a decent quality of life but it was and is profoundly unsustainable. But, we are now in a new era where we have a moral imperative to reduce GHG emissions for future generations and the immense challenges that peaking oil production will bring (The article ‘Peak Oil in Four Years? Mobility and Economic Vulnerabilities’ provides a good summary of some of the peak oil impacts on cities and their populations.) These are things that we can do and many are already doing but a critical piece is for people like Stephanie to understand why we are doing them. In that regard, I guess the city needs to do a better job with its citizen engagement. Oh yeah, and address the fact that despite many improvements over the years we are still an unsustainable city that consumes resources at a rate that assumes we have three to four planets when we only have one.

    PS – Thanks for the great blog and bike videos Streetsblog! You guys rock!

  • MARTIN j

    I was in Vancouver a few weeks ago and saw the bike lanes well used. Maybe I dont know plants but the community gardens seemed really lovely and full of people doing nature things!

  • klaus

    I am all for bike way, only you have here 300 days of rain